Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders
This was how Carl Sandburg described Chicago, and the title “Hog Butcher for the World” was certainly earned by the city’s Union Stockyards.
During the development of the United States, Chicago became a major railroad center and experienced massive commercial growth during the years surrounding the Civil War. In 1848, when Chicago was only a connection for transporting livestock from the West to the rest of the country, small stockyards such as Lake Shore Yard and Cottage Grove Yard were scattered throughout the city along various rail lines. With the westward expansion of the country and the explosion in the amount of rail connections coming into the city, a central location for all the meatpacking was needed.
In order to build the new centralized stockyard, a consortium of nine railroad companies purchased a 320-acre area of swampy land in southwest Chicago for $100,000 in 1864. The stockyards' ultimate boundaries were Pershing Avenue, Halsted Street, 47th Street, and Ashland Avenue and they opened on Christmas Day 1865. By 1900, the stockyard grew to 475 acres, contained 50 miles of road, and had 130 miles of track along its perimeter. Fifteen miles of track delivered livestock directly to the stockyards from the city's main rail lines. Drovers herded cattle, hogs, and sheep down two wide thoroughfares from the railroad cars to the pens. Five hundred thousand gallons of fresh water were pumped daily from the Chicago River into the yards, and waste drained into a fork of the river that would be dubbed "Bubbly Creek" due to the contamination. The bottom of the creek was filled with so much decaying animal flesh that the gases would rise up and cause bubbles on the surface.
My grandfather would often threaten to throw us into Bubbly Creek if we acted up. But he was just joking. (I think…)
In those early years of the stockyards everything was driven by raw manpower. The workers were drawn from the Irish laborers who had been building the Illinois and Michigan Canal that connected Chicago to the Mississippi, so there was a workforce ready for a new job. They did not have a great deal of machinery and lifts and trolleys to move the animals around. Lifting a 350 pound hog would take a couple of men, with the cattle even heavier. So it was manpower rather than steam power or electric power or any other kind of mechanical means; it was hard, laborious work. Hot in the summertime and freezing in the winter.
At the turn of the century, Chicago's meatpacking industry employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States. In addition to processing meat, the packinghouses made creative and lucrative use of slaughterhouse by-products. They built factories to manufacture items such as leather, soap, fertilizer, glue, imitation ivory, gelatin, shoe polish, buttons, perfume, and violin strings.
The working conditions for the thousands employed at the Union Stockyards were abhorrent. Laborers on the killing floors had to work amidst the stench and piercing shrieks of animals being slaughtered while standing on blood-soaked floors. They worked long hours-usually ten to twelve a day-in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in the summertime. In the 1870's, the pay rate for laborer was two dollars a day. Stockyard employers could keep wages low and withhold benefits due to the ready supply of immigrant workers desperate to earn a living. The work was usually required very little skill, decades prior to the creation of Henry Ford's Model T, the meatpacking plants pioneered assembly line production. Meatpackers compartmentalized the work of slaughtering animals so that each laborer needed to learn only one technique. This allowed thousands of animals to be slaughtered and processed daily. The horrendous and unclean conditions at the Stockyards were chronicled in Upton Sinclair’s famous book The Jungle.
After several attempted strikes in 1894, 1904, and 1921, the workers of the stockyards were finally unionized during the Great Depression. This was thanks to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively and outlawed practices used by employers to discourage unionizing.
The area surrounding the Stockyards was soon filled with cottages and tenements that served as the homes for the workers and their families. The fetid stench of animals and decaying flesh permeated the entire neighborhood. The area became known as the Back of the Yards and was one of the few ethnically diverse regions of the city thanks to the huge workforce employed by the Stockyards. The Back of the Yards was filled with Irish, Germans, Bohemians, Poles, Slavs, Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians, African Americans, and Mexicans, but they all shared the common characteristic of stockyard employment. The neighborhood is still known by that name today.
Several factors contributed to the end of Chicago’s centralized Union Stockyards. After World War II, the rapid growth of the federal highway system and the development of the refrigerated truck allowed packinghouses to move out of the expensive urban areas they had depended upon for railroad access. Competition in the meatpacking business led to the building of sophisticated, mechanized plants in less expensive rural areas. Additionally, meatpackers began conducting business directly with farmers, thus bypassing the need for the stockyard.
On July 31, 1971, Chicago's Union Stockyards officially closed. The area has since become an industrial park home to various small factories, none of which are involved in the meatpacking industry. Virtually no structures remain of this once predominant Chicago industry except for the giant limestone arch, erected in 1879, which marked the entrance to the facility.